Posted Feb 23 2010 11:51AM
If we polled every NBA fan out there and asked them for their dream Finals matchup, I'm guessing about 90 percent would say "Lakers-Cavs." This has been the case for the past two seasons. Once we got nostalgia out of the way with the Boston-L.A. Finals in 2008, everyone's attention turned to the Kobe-LeBron battle for the "best player alive" title. I'm not knocking a potential Lakers-Cavs Finals. I'm just saying that we might be ignoring a better series.
Did you watch last Thursday's Cavs-Nuggets game? LeBron James casually threw up a 43-point, 15-assist, 13-rebound triple-double, only to be outdone by Carmelo Anthony, who hit the game-winner, right in LeBron's mug for a 118-116 overtime victory on the road at The Q. It wasn't just a good game, it was an epic game -- about as good and dramatic and riveting as a regular season game can possibly get.
It was so good that it had players like Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul tweeting about it a few minutes after it ended. After the game I remember thinking, "What could possibly be better than watching seven games of a high-stakes Bron and Melo duel for the championship?" The answer is: nothing.
What made last Thursday's game such an instant classic is that LeBron and Melo were both tasked with checking each other. That is key. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain was a great rivalry not only because Boston and Philadelphia were always battling for league supremacy, but also because Wilt and Russ fought from tipoff until the game-ending buzzer. It's something we can't say for Magic vs. Bird. It's also something we can't say about a potential Kobe vs. LeBron battle. Save for maybe the last five minutes of the game, we wouldn't see Bron and Kobe squaring off against each other too often. Nothing can approach a Lakers-Cavs Final when it comes to star power and the drama of the world's two best players trying to settle the "Who's The Man?" debate. That's abstract stuff, though. I'm talking about something very tangible, I'm talking aesthetics. A Cavs-Nuggets Final means that we'd get Bron vs. Melo -- literally -- for 40 to 45 minutes a game over an entire series. Think about that.
Six years ago, around this time, Melo and Bron were rookies battling each other for the Rookie of the Year award. It was the rivalry that was supposed to transfix the NBA public for the next 15 years. LeBron vs. Carmelo. They would have been picks 1 and 2, if Joe Dumars hadn't made the worst Draft selection of the new millennium. It never happened, though. Gradually, LBJ kind of left Melo in his dust. It became a LeBron vs. Kobe or a LeBron vs. D-Wade thing. Melo's Denver squads were always competitive, but he was always out there in the margins, sort of hovering right outside of the "elite of the elite" club. This is the first year that someone could argue Melo as the league's MVP and do it with a straight face. This is where we always thought we'd be: LeBron and Carmelo leading elite teams and playing better inidividual basketball than just about every other human being on the planet.
Last Thursday's game was a bit of a coronation for the LeBron-Carmelo rivalry, because, to be honest, their head-to-head games up to that point had been underwhelming. Before Melo's 40-point gem, he averaged just under 20 ppg in his previous 11 games against the Cavs. LeBron wasn't much better, averaging a pedestrian (for him) 23 ppg in those same 11 games. Neither of them shot particularly well and none of the games was as hyper-competitive as last week's classic. Thursday's game featured two virtuosos engaging in one-upmanship that we haven't seen in a while. Take any position battle -- whether it's Kobe vs. Wade or Chris Paul versus Deron Williams -- and it'd still fall short of the epic battle LeBron and Carmelo waged. Each time down the court in that fourth quarter we saw two of the league's three best players stare at each other and go to work. One was saying, "I'm not going to let you score on me" and the other was saying, "There's nothing you can do to stop me." And it's true isn't it?
Late in the fourth quarter, Melo had Bron isolated on the left wing. He jab-stepped toward the lane and then, on a dime, spun back to his left and dropped in a finger roll. The play was mildly embarrassing for Bron, but he casually jogged up the court with a "What am I supposed to do? He's Carmelo" look on his face and tried to get him back. There's something very compelling about two of the best players to ever pick up a basketball being virtually helpless when faced with the task of stopping each other. I want to see that as often as possible.
Imagine a seven games of Bron vs. Melo for all the chips. It could happen. It should happen. It needs to happen. Now let's get Melo a puppet and start the campaign.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here or follow him on twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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